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Comment: Stop fighting education assessments

A commentary by a senior fellow and retired director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute.
fsa tests delta schools
Foundation skills assessments testing student literacy and numeracy skills will take place in a few weeks.

In a few weeks, Grade 4 and Grade 7 students across B.C. will write the foundation skills assessments — FSAs for short — that test student literacy and numeracy skills.

This will be the 23rd annual writing of the FSAs. Each year the assessments provide evidence of the extent to which elementary and middle school students are achieving acceptable levels of these two critical skills.

Regrettably, even before its introduction in 2000, the teachers’ union began its action to have the FSAs eliminated.

The FSAs are standardized tests. This means that all students in the province write the same tests and, therefore, the results enable useful comparisons.

Parents can see how their own children are doing relative to expectations and how their school compares in its results to other nearby schools.

School principals and teachers can see whether the school’s results are improving, unchanging, or declining over time. By comparing their school’s results with those of other schools that serve students with similar characteristics, principals may find ways to improve their own school’s results.

Likewise, public and independent school boards compare their results to those of other boards and share information about what works and what does not.

Finally, the Ministry of Education combs the FSA results to find opportunities to improve the curriculum.

Indeed, at every level the results of the FSAs are used to improve the education of all the province’s students.

Nonetheless, the teachers’ union has summarily dismissed the FSA assessments as being of no value.

It has continuously lobbied governments, both NDP and Liberal, to drop the assessment. Fortunately, without success.

When it was clear that lobbying alone would not work, the union continues a campaign to convince parents to have their children excused from the test.

The union’s campaign is based on a jumble of lies. In its messages to parents the union argues that the FSA is a waste of money, that the results are useless, and they put unnecessary stress on students. The union has, of course, never offered tangible evidence for any of these claims.

In fact, the FSA assessments take less than four hours, and they are administered gently over a four-week period. Students do not have to study for the FSAs and these assessments don’t count for any school marks. Clearly, the FSAs are inexpensive given their value.

The union’s most egregious lie — found in many of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation campaign materials — that parents may have their students excused from the testing simply by letting the principal know that their child will not be participating.

On this matter, the ministry information to parents is clear.

“All Grade 4 and 7 students in B.C. are required to complete the FSA in their own classrooms, under the supervision of their classroom teacher or school administrator. Your school principal may excuse your child from writing the FSA if they are not yet proficient in English, if they have an identified cognitive disability, or in the event of extenuating circumstances (e.g. extended illness or family emergency etc.).”

But the union just battles on, offering parents a little pre-printed note which the BCTF encourages parents to sign and deliver to the principal, with no need to include any reason for the exemption.

Fortunately, the union’s campaign targeting parents has had little success. Recent data shows that about 70 per cent of the public-school students expected to write the FSAs will do so.

This participation rate would be even higher were it not for the poor participation in Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby, Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows and a few other larger urban school boards. The education ministry should again make it clear to these boards that they must ensure the highest possible level of participation.

Surely it is long since time for the teachers’ union to end its misguided campaign against these valuable assessments.

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